OTTAWA — An Illinois appeals court has ruled that the judge falling asleep during one of Sterling spree killer Nicholas Sheley's murder trials doesn't warrant a retrial.
The Illinois Appellate Court panel in Ottawa said former Whiteside County Judge Jeffrey O'Connor's nap was harmless as long as he wasn't sleeping during crucial evidence or motions.
Sheley was found guilty at the May 2014 trial in Rock Island County of killing four people in a Rock Falls apartment.
O'Connor, who had relinquished the post of chief justice of the 14th Judicial Circuit 8 months earlier, citing health reasons, apparently fell asleep while the lights were dim and security camera footage was being played for the jury, although he denied doing so.
"If I was not looking at the video, that does not mean that I was not listening and hearing everything that was being said," O'Connor said.
Sheley, who is serving eight consecutive life sentences, one for each victim, sought a new trial because he alleged that O'Connor repeatedly napped.
"Of course it should be automatic reversal if the judge falls asleep," said Sheley's attorney, Steve Greenberg. "It sends an awful message to the jurors that whatever is going on is just not important."
Appellate Judge Mary O'Brien also disagreed with the majority, citing a Cook County murder conviction that was dismissed after the judge left the bench during a trial to take a phone call from another judge.
"A judge cannot be actively present on the bench when he is asleep," O'Brien said.
The appeals court ruled that the evidence against Sheley was overwhelming and that O'Connor napping had no effect on the trial.
Sheley was convicted of first-degree murder in the June 2008 deaths of Brock Branson, 29; his fiancee Kilynna Blake, 20; her 2-year-old son, Dayan; and Kenneth Ulve, 25, who were found beaten to death in the apartment.
He already had been convicted of the murders of Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg, and Russell Reed, 93, of Sterling, and on Sept. 21, he pleaded guilty to murdering Jill and Tom Estes, both 54 and of Arkansas, who were killed in Festus, Missouri.
The plea came as part of an agreement to spare him the death penalty.
Sheley said at the time that he would not appeal any of his convictions, but this appeal, which was ruled on on Oct. 27, was filed shortly after the 2014 trial.